Condemned to Repeat It

Why Washington's foreign policymakers desperately need to study up on their history.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

By now it is painfully obvious that U.S. policymakers blew it big-time in Ukraine. As I argued last week, the United States and the European Union backed the anti-Yanukovych forces in Ukraine in a fit of idealistic absentmindedness, and don’t seem to have considered the possibility that Russia would see this action as a threat to its vital interests and would respond in a sharp and ruthless manner. It is the latest in a string of bipartisan foreign-policy failures, a long list that includes the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Afghan "surge" in 2009, and the ill-fated interventions in Somalia, Libya, and several other countries.

There are many reasons for these recurring failures, but one that stands out is the pervasive ignorance of history within the U.S. foreign-policy elite. Speaking at Harvard a couple of years ago, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was asked what kind of training provided the best preparation for a foreign-policy career. His answer was philosophy and history: The former because it taught rigorous thinking and the latter because it helped one understand the broader context in which decisions must be made and gave leaders a clearer sense of both prospects and limits.

In short, a sophisticated knowledge of history is of inestimable value for anyone wrestling with difficult foreign-policy problems. Here’s why. 

For starters, knowledge of history helps discipline our intuitions and policy instincts. We all use various theories to make sense of an infinitely complicated universe, and policymakers cannot figure out a course of action to pursue without relying on their own notions about which factors are most important and what is causing what. In this sense, all policy decisions rest on theoretical intuitions: We choose policy X because we believe the desired results Y and Z will follow. But if those intuitions are at odds with historical experience, you’re not likely to get the results you expect.

Take for example, Iraq. If George W. Bush and Dick Cheney had known anything about the turbulent history of Iraq from 1958 to 1971, they might have realized that toppling Saddam Hussein would unleash deep internal schisms and drag the United States into a costly quagmire. Instead of succumbing to the neocon’s fantasies of a painless war that would pay for itself, they might have decided to stick with the existing policy of containment instead. So, not only does knowing a lot of history help us formulate basic theories that conform to past experience, it can also help us see where our existing beliefs and policy preferences might be wrong.

In this way, history provides the raw data that can help us determine whether ideas that seem convincing at first blush are sound and will therefore work in practice. Nobel Prize winner Thomas Schelling developed many brilliant ideas about military compellence, for example, but historical studies of wartime coercion suggest that some of them don’t work in practice. Similarly, the idea that democratic leaders can bargain more effectively because the fear of "audience costs" makes them less likely to bluff or back down is both clever and intuitively appealing; it just doesn’t seem to be borne out in the historical record.

Moreover, we cannot evaluate the uniqueness or the salience of any event or new development without a sense of the historical backdrop against which it occurs. Is Russia’s seizure of Crimea an unusual occurrence, a moral crime of unique significance, or is it just business-as-usual in the brutal business of international politics? If you know enough history — including the Monroe Doctrine, the Mexican-American War, or even the more recent war between Russia and Georgia — what has happened over the past two weeks wouldn’t seem surprising or unprecedented, and your sense of outrage might be tempered even if you still believed it was an illegal act. If Hillary Clinton had read more history and thought about it more carefully, she might not have offered up the simplistic and overheated comparison between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Adolf Hitler that she did.

Broad knowledge of history also helps us understand how other people see the past, and this perspective can help us avoid some of the misunderstandings that routinely bedevil diplomatic efforts. If you don’t know anything about past U.S. interference in Latin America, for example, you will not understand why many people in that region remain wary of the United States and you might be too quick to interpret their suspicion as a sign of unwarranted anti-Americanism. Similarly, the conflicting narratives that each side tells itself about the past routinely complicate diplomacy between the United States and Iran (for Americans, it’s the 1980 hostage crisis; for Iranians, it’s the 1953 coup that restored the Shah). If you’re ignorant of your opponent’s view of the past, you won’t understand where they’re coming from and their behavior will be nearly impossible to interpret correctly.

Furthermore, the study of history teaches that past events are inevitably subject to competing narratives and interpretations, and that there is no single "true" account of any complicated historical process. That’s not a defense of moral or historical relativism, mind you; it simply recognizes that even events and facts that are not in dispute can be understood from different vantage points. Knowing this simple fact of life is the best antidote against the self-serving narratives that governments and misguided patriots routinely invoke to excuse their own conduct and justify suppressing others.  

Awareness of competing narratives also reminds us to ask: "How does this crisis look to my opponent? How does he or she think we got into this mess, and who do they think is responsible?" To take a contemporary example: Vladimir Putin’s understanding of the history of NATO expansion is sharply different from the version purveyed by its promoters here in the United States or by politicians in Poland or Estonia. That difference in perspective helps explain why Putin responded as he did to the events in Ukraine, and a more wide-ranging knowledge of history might have warned U.S. policymakers to expect precisely the reaction they got. 

Asking these questions does not require us to accept another’s interpretation, but it can reveal how they see things and how much work has to be done to move them where you want them to be. Knowing how different historical narratives are constructed is key to that process. 

Gauging the effectiveness of different policy instruments also depends on careful historical analysis. Economic sanctions are an increasingly popular tool of statecraft, for example, but the history of past sanctions campaigns tells us that they are rarely effective as tools of coercion and helps us identify the special conditions under which they are more likely to work.  Unfortunately for those who are calling for tough sanctions against Moscow, these studies suggest this reaction won’t put much pressure on Moscow and is more likely to lead Putin to dig in his heels.

A firm grasp of history and proper historical reasoning helps us guard against misplaced analogies and dubious historical "lessons." Historical analogies are a central part of most policy discourse, and advocates for one policy or another routinely invoke some past incident to justify their preferred course of actions today. However, as the late Ernest May showed in "Lessons" of the Past: The Use and Misuse of History in American Foreign Policy, such analogies are usually misleading.  Or as Andrew Bacevich showed a few days ago, a lot of recent commentary about Ukraine is replete with historical howlers that would merit a failing grade, even in colleges where grade-inflation is rampant.

To take an infamous example: Ever since World War II, U.S. policymakers have used the supposed lessons of the 1938 Munich agreement to justify hard-line policies. Overreliance on one infamous incident makes no sense, however, because Munich was not a typical historical event. Far from being a normal national leader, Adolf Hitler was a genocidal megalomaniac with a near-suicidal willingness to jeopardize the future of his own country and the lives of many millions of others. Leaders like Hitler are rare — fortunately — yet U.S. officials have treated the Munich experience as if it were a representative and revealing example of how international politics typically works. It is hard to think of a historical error that has had more damaging long-term effects.

Finally, history makes us aware of the enduring continuities of world politics — such as the preoccupation of most states with security and their willingness to act ruthlessly when threatened — while simultaneously helping us recognize change over time. The anti-slavery movement, the illegitimacy of colonialism, the emergence of the global human rights movement, and the changing role of women in many societies are all developments that cannot be fully appreciated without a deep understanding of the past.  

A solid grounding in international history should therefore be part of every aspiring foreign policymaker’s intellectual training.  Unfortunately, that’s not what most young people learn these days as they prepare for foreign policy careers. In the United States, at least, future foreign policy managers are more likely to go to law school instead, which is good for honing one’s argumentative skills but doesn’t teach much history (and certainly not world history). In schools of public policy and international affairs (including my own employer), the emphasis is on economics, statistics, "leadership," and other aspects of policy analysis or management, with a smattering of ethics or philosophy thrown in on occasion. Students sometimes learn the rudiments of international relations theory and get some practical skills in memo-writing, and maybe they do some in-depth study on policy areas like arms control or human rights.  You’ll undoubtedly learn some basic history if you’re interested in a particular region, but it will probably focus on the post-World War II period and will almost certainly be taught from a U.S. perspective. Neither a wide knowledge of history nor a sophisticated understanding of historical method and reasoning are likely to be offered. And then we wonder why American policymakers often appear to be so ignorant about the past.

The bottom line: U.S. President Barack Obama (and his successors) would be better off with fewer policy wonks, pollsters, and lawyers in their inner circles, and with a few more well-trained historians instead. (I’m a political scientist, by the way, so I’m not promoting my own discipline here.) And if I had a magic wand and could transform how aspiring foreign policymakers were trained, studying lots of history would be mandatory while some of the other subjects students are now forced to study would become optional.

My advice: If you have your heart set on a career in international affairs, reading plenty of history and learning how historians think would be excellent preparation. Given the paltry comprehension of history currently on display in Washington, D.C., such knowledge would make you nearly unique, and thus uniquely valuable.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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